Friday, December 1, 2023

sf novel review

The Kuiper Belt Job by David D. Levine (Caesik, 2023)

Let me admit my bias from the start: the author is an old friend, since before he'd ever published any fiction. But it didn't take that for me to admire his short stories, and what made me particularly eager for this novel was his post in Scalzi's Big Idea series, in which he describes his intent of writing a caper novel featuring a group of charming rogues who form a "found family," along the lines of - among other examples - the Serenity gang from Firefly.

As a fan of Firefly, and also of caper stories, my interest was immediately caught. What I especially liked about Firefly, as I mentioned in comments, was that it didn't have one protagonist with the other characters as satellites. Though it had a main character, the whole cast was important, and the relationships were many-to-many. Each had a relationship of some sort with each of the others, and each of these was distinct.

I looked forward to the same thing from David's book, and pretty much found it there. I picked up a copy on my next visit to the local independent bookstore, and read it in about three gulps. It's set in an interplanetary future, with well-developed human settlements on moons, asteroids, and artificial satellites, with spaceships zipping around between them. As the title reveals, the gang are gearing up to pull a heist out in the Kuiper belt, which is a pretty fair clip away even in this environment, so there's a lot of prep work, as well as gathering together the gang to pull it.

But it begins with a flashback to an earlier caper when they're all together, along with some others who don't show up in the later story. One of the trickiest tasks in written fiction is introducing a large cast of characters all at once while not confusing or overwhelming the reader or causing them to think, "Now which one was that again?" You don't have the faces and voices of actors to give an assist as in tv shows or movies. In that aspect, this book is a masterpiece, the craft of fiction writing performed at its highest level. The author carefully hands the people out at the beginning, and even after chapters of gap, I never felt any confusion. The plot is a series of capers, and as one succeeded another, I felt absolutely no sense of weariness, of "here we go again" that's so common in stories so structured. Everything was exciting and interesting. The gang are crooks, yes, but they have honor among themselves and I felt no sense of guilt in identifying with them.

The cast all have obvious Firefly analogues (and if they aren't obvious, the Big Idea post will clue you in), but as individual characters they're very different from the Firefly equivalents (except for Damien the pilot, who is Wash to a tee). I found it easier, in fact, not to imagine the actors from Firefly playing the parts in my head: it only interfered with the individuality of these characters.

There were only a couple of problems. First, though the characters were highly distinct, their voices weren't. Each major character gets a chapter in the first person, and they don't sound different. But such disparate people really should. If this story were told in intercutting first person, this sameness would be disastrous. Separated out, however, it's no more than distracting. By the time we got to person D's chapter, I had to keep reminding myself that we were no longer in the head of person C.

The other problem is that, near the end, the plot takes a sudden and disconcerting left turn. This surprises the characters as much as it does the reader, but that doesn't help. It introduces a major and uncharacteristic moral failing, which isn't ignored but is kind of brushed aside. That and the attendant restructuring of the basis of the story leave a sour taste, and make me less eager for sequels than I would be.

But don't let those stop you. This is overall a delightfully readable sf adventure tale that in large part is a really excellent novel.

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